Akai the Dolphin

January 10, 2009 — With winter here, my thoughts inevitably turn back to a time in my life when I lived on the Gulf Coast of Florida. The balmy weather, the sandy beaches, the brightly colored architecture. Man, did I hate that place. Living the same day over and over again is many people’s definition of purgatory and many more’s definition of hell. I need seasons, I need fireplaces, I need a varied geography, and I need people around me to wear actual footwear instead of sandals or flip-flops. It is not your decision to make whether you have nice enough feet to show off.

However, as bad a place as Florida can be for all kinds of reasons, there’s no denying that there’s way cool stuff to do there. Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, Kennedy Space Center, and SeaWorld are the places that come to my mind without having to resort to an Internet search to bolster my point. It’s amazing what you can build when you don’t have to worry about shutting down for the winter.

Adjacent to SeaWorld in Orlando is Discovery Cove, a resort-like attraction the main focus of which is animal-visitor interaction, mostly of the marine variety. The set up of Discovery Cove is different than the other major Florida attractions. You have to reserve in advance, they cap admittance to keep down crowds, there are no attractions that you have to stand in line for, breakfast and lunch are included in the admission price along with unlimited drinks and snacks, you have all-day use of all the swimming and reef pools, and a ticket to SeaWorld or Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is included in the cost.

Oh, and for an additional fee, you can schedule semi-personal time with a dolphin. All told, you’re looking at about $200 bucks for admission, and just under $300 if you add on the dolphin experience. It’s pricey, certainly, but I wasn’t trying to buy tickets for a family of five. Plus, I blow that amount of money on less memorable things pretty regularly.

When we arrived, we got our pictures taken and laminated onto ID cards that are both a map of the attraction and proof that we had $300 of disposable income. We also schedule our time slot for our dolphin encounter. We picked an early slot since we knew we wouldn’t be able to enjoy anything else there with that type of anticipation hanging over our head.

When I went, a staff member was standing nearby with a sloth of some sort hanging around her neck like a piece of rapstar jewelry. We were all encouraged to pet it, but I think my interaction might have been closer to prodding. It’s a sloth, what the heck’s it going to do? This type of casual animal encounter is set up at various spots around the entire place. If my memory serves me, there was a large tortoise at one, and a large bird of some sort at another.

Next, we got outfitted. That’s right. There’s a dress code. You get the choice of a yellow and black swimming vest or an outright body suit, similarly colored. I went with the vest because I was pretty proud of the swim trunks I was wearing that day. We also got a complimentary mask and snorkel, the latter of which I still have and still have no idea what to do with. It sits awkwardly and out of place in a box of mostly paper memorabilia in one of my closets.

While we waited the hour or so for our dolphin event, we discovered the ray lagoon. This was a small, waist-deep pool aswarm with car-tire-sized stingrays...and you could jump right in. Well, wade right in, at least. Which I did, without thinking, because in the pocket of my swim trunks was my digital camera. That’s right, I killed my digital camera 10 minutes into one of the most picture-worthy experiences of my life.

Fortunately, other people in my group had cameras and the dolphin experience itself was filmed and photographed by Discovery Cove staff for sale to us later. And that’s why I don’t have a lot of pictures of the various parts of the place, and the pictures I do have all look like advertisements for Discovery Cove.

The lagoon is so full of the silly flat creatures that they can’t help but swim all around your calves, although they pretty much ignore you in that annoying way that fish and other far-flung species do. Still, you’ll be able to get a hand down for a quick grope. Anyway, other than the camera mishap doubling the cost of my Discovery Cove excursion, the ray lagoon was an amazing experience. Even so, it ended up finishing third overall of my Discovery Cove experiences.

Next came the dolphin encounter, so let me condense the larger post-dolphin part of my Discovery Cove day into three quick paragraphs before getting to that. The coral reef was spectacular, and had I an underwater camera at the time, this article would be about that and not the dolphins. It was a large, deep reef pool where you could get in and snorkel around through schools of shimmering fish while rays the size of my splayed body glided inches below my splayed body.

In fact, the coral reef was large and deep enough to forget you were in a pool. Granted, I haven’t snorkeled much in my life and have no basis of comparison, but if you’re an experienced diver and find it laughable that swimming in a giant tank surrounding by all kinds of fish could be so awe-inspiring, you’re just jaded. The girl who dusts the Hope Diamond every night should still be legitimately impressed by her best friend’s engagement ring.

I spent hours of soundless snorkeling among all the creatures with just sights and thoughts to keep me company, although very few of the latter. Maybe it was because of the attendance cap, maybe it was the timing, but neither the reef nor the park itself, for that matter, was crowded. It really seemed like it was just me, the fish, and that one staff member who kept yelling at me from the shore to stop bothering the animals so much.

You even get to swim beside deadly barracudas and sharks by a clever little system of tanks within the reef, where the creatures are separated from everything else by large, invisible-seeming windows set in the sides of the reef pool and in a shipwreck decoration in the middle of it all.

Besides the reef pool, there was also an aviary where you could feed birds of various species while they landed on your arms, shoulders, head, or any other body protrusions you’d laid bare, as well as a more conventional tropical-themed swimming pool and lazy river that passed through the aviary.

Finally, 11 paragraphs in and close to the end of this article, the dolphin that’s supposed to be the main topic. We arrived at the dolphin lagoon at the appropriate time, viewed a video, were given some instructions, and then were separated into our groups. There were eight in each group, so in mine it was my party of four and a family of four.

We were led into the water by a staff member while another stood by to help out. There were four other groups of eight well-spaced throughout the sizeable lagoon, in addition to the trainers and staff photographers. Each group got its own bottlenose dolphin. Ours was a giant half-ton male named Akai. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder in waist-deep water while Akai floated and rotated patiently in front of us. We were encouraged by the trainer to pet everything but his nether-regions, which we avoided making too many jokes about as two of our group were under the age of seven (eight is my cut-off for lewd jokes).

Akai, like all dolphins I’ve seen on television and in zoos, looked like he was made of fiberglass, but he felt velvety and smooth, which I know is how pudding is usually described. Akai didn’t feel like pudding. I’m not sure if there is a land-equivalent. Of course, now that I’ve written that, I Googled to see how others explained it, and most of them had great similes that I won’t steal because Internet plagiarism is too easy to trace, although I will from here on out use them when I tell this story in actual conversation.

We got to throw dead fish in his mouth, strangely shaped things though they are (dead fish and dolphin mouths), and we were taught a few hand signals to use to communicate with him. Even watched him parody a shark on command. We then each individually got the opportunity to wade further into the lagoon and pose with Akai while the photographers took pictures. Each of us was peer-pressured to give it a kiss it on the snout, and I was comfortable enough in both my manhood and specieshood to go for it.

Then, two at a time, we swam out to the middle of the lagoon to be carried back individually by the dolphin. I’m a horrible swimmer, but the vest was buoyant enough to hide the fact and helped me easily get to where I needed to be in the water. While I held onto his fin, Akai towed me back to where the other members of the group waited. I felt like what a girl must feel like when she’s led well on the dance floor. That’s right, animal encounters always emasculate me. Akai was terribly muscular, like a giant bicep flexing through the water. His tail kept bumping into me as he swam, and his strength and solidity reminded me how weak I feel anytime I try to do anything with force while underwater.

For the finale, all eight of us were told to make one of the hand gestures we were taught earlier, and Akai raced away from us to the center of the lagoon before leaping into the air simultaneously with the other dolphins from the other groups, who had also directed their dolphins to do so.

The experience lasted about half an hour and was the opposite of disappointing. Afterwards we bought pictures of our experience and found out that they’d taped it as well. We split the cost of the DVD four ways and then burned copies, so now I know what kind of mannerisms I have when I’m interacting with a dolphin.

So, Discovery Cove...the place where I kissed Akai. That’s a funny joke if you say it out loud. And you’re a guy. And you’re not into that. All right. That’s too many rules for it to be funny.